Chapter 82:

The Raikage sat in the makeshift canvas chair, leaning his left elbow over his knee, right arm held aloft by a medic examining him, the green glow of healing chakra knitting together the litany of small cuts and scrapes. The worst of it was being physically stitched by another medic, the two working in tandem around him.

The pain was coming now the rush of adrenaline and battle frenzy having long since faded.

It was manageable, but it was there, would likely be worse come the morning. Same with Hatake no doubt.

All around him, men were moving.

Some were escorting the wounded, some patrolling, some setting up the watch schedule, some building what would be their camp for the night.

All were on guard, still resting just beyond the shadow of Konoha.

The pillars of smoke were still visible; that's how close they were.

A closed his eyes, breathing deep, smelling pine, wood, wet leaves, earth… blood and metal too.

"Status on our objectives?" He called.

His Anbu commander; The new one, Hono, stepped forward. "Damage to Konohagakure's internal infrastructure and logistical support capabilities are estimated to be extremely high. Their casualties as well. The scroll of secrets of the Nidaime has been taken, along with many records and secrets from the various clans whose compounds we raided. With any luck, we may be able to replicate some of their clan techniques with time, at the very least, counter tem."

Another man, this one a Jounin, spoke next. "We've captured several Hyuuga clan members, four from the branch house, but at least two from the main house. They have no caged bird seal."

"Their age?" A asked, eyes never opening, his body barely moving from his hunched position.

"Older, unfortunately. Mid forty's and early sixties both. They may not be ideal for… procreation naturally; but we have options; more than we did before. We have several Uchiha as well. Members of their police force that tried to stop us."

"Are any of them related to Uchiha Itachi? Direct family?" He asked, because he *had* to know that.

"No, Raikage dono."

A grunted.

Hono cleared his throat. "The… primary objective however- the capture of the young Fire lady, Magojiro Sasame eluded us.

"And I failed to kill Hatake." he snarled, feeling his men stiffen around him.

"This… isn't a failure, Raikage-sama." Hono tried to reassure him.

"Isn't it?" A uttered quietly. "Remind me. How many did we lose?"

"Not many sir…" One of his chuunin commanders answered. "Casualties were numbers suggest we've lost about a sixth of our strength, that's including both dead and wounded."

A snorted. "A sixth… Yugito was more than just a sixth."

And there it was.

If not for that… the day could have been called an unmitigated success.

Even without Sasame, without Hatake, escaping with so many of Konoha's techniques, so many of their clan techniques and so many prisoners they could use to breed their own derivative bloodlines in the coming years- the crippling damage they'd leveled into the internal organs of the beast that was Konohagakure…

They'd won.

Without a single doubt… They won.

But of course… Konoha had to take something, didn't they? Some small scrap of victory they had no right to have.

Yugito… dead. Her body was left behind.

His fault. His order. His responsibility.

She was one of his… and he'd left her behind.

Unacceptable.

"Raikage-sama-" Another adviser spoke. "We've been unable to determine how many Suna nin have come to reinforce Konoha… and we're receiving reports from the southern scouts of additional movements… from Kiri sir. We can't be sure of their intentions. We have much of what we came for and have likely done enough damage for Iwa to capitalize on. We must retreat back across the border before they can organize a-"

"We're not leaving." A snarled, his face twisting, tightening, a rictus of rage carving deep harsh lines across his features. "I will not leave Yugito here."

"M-my lord." The man stammered and A saw it was an older Jounin, the man was bowing at the waist. "We may have the numbers to overpower what's left of Konoha and their Suna reinforcements but… we've lost the element of surprise and we'll be stretched thin launching an assault and guarding the prisoners at the same time. They can all turn on us and-"

"Then we negotiate."

On paper. He knew what he was ordering. What he was doing.

It's the wrong call.

He knows it.

Any other ninja. ANY other one, even himself; this was NOT an option.

But this was not any other ninja.

This was Yugito…

Yugito and Bee, he'd sworn to never let them leave the village. That they would never come to harm while he was in charge.

She insisted. Determined. Demanding.

Loyal.

His fault.

His responsibility.

His men looked aghast, surprised and dismayed.

He couldn't look them in the eye. Couldn't blame them even as they protested his orders; and that too was unacceptable.

"You don't understand gentlemen." The Raikage's voice rolled like thunder regardless. "Talk, fight, burn it to the ground or rebuild it right back up whatever it takes… I am not leaving one of our own there to be… dissected and pulled apart, everything she has and was turned against us. Follow my orders or get out of my sight."

"Sir. She's not worth this! She's just a-"

The man stopped and A could only imagine the look in the pits that were his own eyes as he saw his own image reflected in the suddenly fearful gaze of his subordinate.

There was a threat in his voice now, or perhaps a promise.

"If you're finished…"

The man swallowed thickly, nodding as he bowed again.

A remained seated for a short time, pulling his arm free of the fussing medic before he stood. When he spoke, it was in a voice that invited no argument.

"She is our Jinchuurikki. And we do not reward loyal service in Kumo with callous indifference. She will be returned to us and I don't care if we have to fight all of fucking Suna or what's left of Konoha to do it.

They agreed and he didn't care if they meant it.

The Raikage turned and walked away to where the men had just finished setting up what would be his tent.

(X)(X)(X)

"The silos?"

"Burned." Came the succinct answer. "The Silk farms as well. There were not many Inuzuka clansmen in the village but those that were… their kennels were targeted first. Many of the dogs were burned in their cages before they could even muster."

Kakashi sighed, rubbing at his forehead with his still functioning arm. He was sitting, in as much as he was allowed to sit.

The preliminary prognosis said he'd likely lose the foot unless Tsunade returned. They could numb the pain, stop infection and inflammation from spreading. But the bones of his foot had been cracked and then subsequently ground against each other until it was a mess of tiny splinters.

Surgery, extensive surgery, or amputation were the only options. But that, frankly was a distant concern

The village itself had fared far worse.

His fire attack had stymied the rush of Kumo nin, giving his men time to secure the most valuable assets. Troop deployments, campaign plans, the location of their Hunter nin and their S class assets, Naruto, Itachi and such. The majority of the clan heads and governing political body of the village and higher administrative logistics had been saved. The most Classified techniques as well.

But everything else?

The damage had only just started to be catalogued and it was already a disaster.

Kumo hadn't just been targeting the most valuable targets, such as himself, Sasame, and information they could use to decimate their active field forces.

They'd been targeting clans.

Kumo's desire for strong bloodlines was well known and beyond giving what amounted to an obscenely last minute warning to those same clans there wasn't much that could have been done to stop them. .

The strong were out fighting.

Those left behind… the young, the old and sickly.

They were not… useful for combat.

But as potential raw material to abscond with, or potentially create wholly new bloodlines in Kumo…

Dangerous. Catastrophic event.

He hadn't had the numbers to evacuate them and even if he had he wasn't sure there would have been enough time.

That wasn't to mention the damage A and his ninja had inflicted on the clans themselves.

The Aburame silk farms were destroyed. The kennels of the Inuzuka along with their fur processing had been destroyed. The Uchiha libraries, all of their collected knowledge of techniques gathered from all corners of the world and all their knowledge on the Sharingan, destroyed, members of the Hyuuga main branch missing

The only ones that had been spared were the Akimichi, the Nara and the Yamanaka and mainly because those 'clans' consisted of single family homes.

More than that- the hospital was heavily damaged in his fight with A, shops ransacked, homes collapsed, roads torn apart.

Akane and her battle with the Nibi had nearly burned down a fifth of the village by themselves.

The monetary costs alone would stretch into the millions on a treasury already stretched to the absolute breaking point...

Once word reached the warriors at the front lines- and it would reach them- they would return. Many of them, if not all of them.

Especially the Hyuuga, thinning their forces even further.

The only thing; the barest sliver of a positive was who exactly they had taken in response.

"Status of the bijuu?"

"Orochimaru-sama is not here." The head Anbu said quickly. "But his notes on sealing the Bijuu have helped those with some expertise. It has been sealed into a scroll. It's holding… for now. Though many believe the monster is exhausted from its battle. Once it regains its strength… well…

"And the host?"

"Her body is being examined. Soon our medics will begin their more extensive inquiries in hopes of discovering any secrets she held.

"Belay that for now." He said calmly.

"Sir?"

Kakashi eyed the man lazilly. "A is still holding beyond the walls… what do you believe he's waiting for?"

The Anbu shifted. "You believe he'll ask for her return."

"Demand more like." Kakashi explained. "A bijuu is a boon… but for now we have no host, and we won't have one for years yet. If we can return her and it both for some of what we lost… well… we might call things net even at best, rather than the crushing defeat this was."

He took a breath, closing his eye as the headache throbbed. "Where is the Kazekage?"

"He has been…" The man paused. "Patrolling? He's walking the districts our fire attacks burned down, those closest to the Kumo camp."

"I would see him." The Hokage sighed.

The Anbu offered a bow, turning to leave, before he crossed the door he called. "Ask him. Politely, if you please."

Another nod, and soon the door to his makeshift hospital room closed behind him.

(X)(X)(X)

"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"

"Stop apologizing!"

The words came out harsher than she intended, but after almost six hours of incessant apologies… she got the message.

"Sorry."

Hanabi tried not to snarl as Akane winced.

The burns hurt. Of course they did, they were burns.

She couldn't activate her Byakugan.

The burning air had damaged her eyes; if she used it, she might very well make the damage irreparable. so she couldn't see herself as she normally would and it felt stupid to ask for a mirror when so many others were injured and none of them were yet out of danger.

She could feel it across her body as she squirmed on the medical cot. Her face, scalp, under her eyes, neck shoulders, fingers, legs… everywhere.

Akane had, by merely standing next to her, burned almost the whole of her flesh to some degree or another. Her skin was red, blistering. She hoped there wouldn't be scarring… or at least not much and if there was then let it be in places she could hide under clothes easily.

Akane sniffled, and Hanabi opened a glassy orb to look at her.

She looked miserable; red tear tracks lined her cheeks and Hanabi didn't have a doubt she was every bit as repentant as she professed and looked.

The Hyuuga princess wished she was… better at this. That she could tell her it was alright, in more ways than she had, with just words.

But she wasn't, so she settled on something else.

On the other side of the street, beneath the canopy of a building's awning, along the other array of hastily put together medical cots housing the injured in the shadow of the shattered hospital, Hanabi could just spy Sasame, sitting by someone's bedside.

Yuugao, she guessed.

She couldn't see the woman clearly from this angle, but who else would she be next to?

"You think she's alright?"

Akane turned her head, following her gaze. Another sniffle came out of her, wiping at her eyes with the base of her palm as she wiped her nose with her sleeve. "I… dunno… haven't talked to her yet. I was worried about you."

"Hn. You should. She probably needs a friend right now."

Akane nodded, but still made no move to leave.

The Hyuuga girl breathed, deep and slow, feeling her chest expand with a pleasant stretch. "I should've seen it. I knew something wasn't right."

"Hmmm?" Akane blinked.

"Sasame." She explained "I knew there was more to the situation. I thought she was a noble of somekind, perhaps a bastard from a mistress someone was keeping quiet and hidden." She snorted, to herself mostly. "The Fire lady."

"I didn't know either." Akane admitted.

"I know." The pale girl said. "You can never keep a secret."

At that, the red head suddenly looked indignant. "What? Since when!?"

Hanabi's answering stare stare was flat and deadpan.

Akane's cheeks puffed out. "You never knew I was a Jinchuurikki!"

"You lit up the village like a bonfire- secret's out."

"... You don't know what Bijuu though!"

"The monkey. You know. The one who's famous for burning down half a continent?"

Akane's mouth opened… then it closed, and she stared mulishly at the bedridden heiress.

Hanabi shrugged. "Don't glare at me because you have all the subtlety of a rampaging bull."

She jerked her head. "Now stop stalling and go. Even if she wasn't the most powerful political figure that you can easily ingratiate yourself with, I figure you'd still be the kind to go help in this situation."

Akane looked between the two of them. "But you're-"

"- a big girl" She interrupted. "Now get up and go."

(X)(X)(X)

The door opened.

Kakashi's eye swiveled up, away from the latest report regarding the damage suffered to the tower. "Kazekage-dono." He nodded.

Not that the gesture meant much. Sabaku no Gaara looked much the same as when Kakashi last saw him, if not taller and older. His thin, lanky frame was still present, dressed in white and black, and blindfolded.

The wolf leaned back in his seat. "I was under the impression your seal had been improved." He said by way of asking.

To answer, the Kazekage reached up, pulling off the blindfold to reveal seafoam green eyes. "It has." He said softly before looking at the blindfold. "I've spent most of my life with this on. It's… strange to go without it."

As good an explanation as any- "As strange to arrive with such a thin escort?"

The younger man looked at him blandly. "There wasn't enough time to wait for them."

"And how did you know exactly?" He asked- shifting in his seat. "To arrive so quickly."

"Konoha is not the only one with spies." He said.

"Kumo is on the opposite end of the continent from you… you would have needed advanced warning, even with your ability to fly."

"And I received it;" He drawled. "From Kiri."

Kiri… if he were being truthful Kakashi found it somewhat easier to believe. Kiri wanted trade, Kumo was one of the primary obstacles to that trade… even so-"

"Why would they tell you and not us directly?"

The Kazekage shrugged. "Perhaps an intercepted message."

A lie… definitely. But not one he could disprove… and not one he had the luxury to push right now.

If it came to another battle, without the Kazekage's aid, more specifically without a second Jinchuuriki to Kumo's none at the moment; they didn't have a prayer of driving them back. He was in no condition to fight much less drive off A again, which would leave Akane to do the fighting.

Could she win?

Possible.

But A had fought Jinchuuriki before and won.

The Kazekage had come to 'help' them. And so right now, regardless of how he acquired his information Kakashi needed to accept that help.

"Even so… not many would risk rushing to fight an elite attack force… alone. While I'm grateful- why risk it?"

What do you hope to gain.

Gaara turned his eyes away.

"I owe Uzumaki." He said. "I would not see his home destroyed if I could help. Some in Kiri feel the same."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "That's it?"

His incredulity was practically laid bare just in the tone of his voice.

The younger man shrugged, closing his eyes. "I doubt someone such as yourself, in your position-" he amended. "-would have the luxury of believing that reason. But it is my reason. And it's why I stay now, despite the fact that my own guards are still more than a day's hard march away and Kumo's army lingers.."

What was visible of Kakashi's face was etched from stone, and suddenly his reprimands towards Naruto for his overly friendly treatment of the Kazekage and open help with the man's seal returned to his mind, almost taunting him.

He doubted the man was being entirely truthful; it couldn't be, but if it was, the irony, by far, was not lost on him.

Before he could speak, Gaara turned, walking towards one of the rooms windows as he stared out into the damaged visage of the village.

"Is it true you've killed the Bijuu and captured their Jinchuuriki?"

The Hokage stifled a sigh, wondering if it was his men or Gaara's skill that had let the information slip.

"Yes, we did." He affirmed.

"I imagine that's why he's remained." The youth observed.

"That was my thinking as well."

A pause, and Kakashi weighed the pros and cons of speaking his mind before he decided the pros outweigh the cons, at least while Suna still acted in common cause with them.

"I imagine he'll bargain for her."

"You plan to leverage that." The Kazekage observed. "A bijuu is not something easily lost or recovered from once it has been lost. Then again; the same goes with bloodlines."

Yet more information slipping the net.

Suna now knew of the compromised state of their clan integrity. And if Suna knew, soon Kiri and Iwa would know. Kumo may have kept it under wraps for a time, at least until they could consolidate their research and try to forge new offshoot clans in their village. The other powers had no such compunction.

"He hasn't acquired as much value as he believes." He tried to hedge.

"If that were the case, you wouldn't be thinking of bargaining at all."

Damn, the boy, for all his youth, was shrewd. He should have expected as much perhaps.

Gaara didn't move, remaining by the window with his arms crossed.

"He knows his position here is untenable. Tomorrow he would still be secure, but after that my men will arrive, and by then you would have assessed the damage to send out runners to go and summon back your nearest battle groups. When they arrive his small force can easily be surrounded and cut off. If he's called more men, he risks overcommitting himself here. One Bijuu is not worth losing a significant percentage of his battlestrength to secure."

The boy seemed like he was thinking aloud, more to himself than Kakashi as he, step by step, deduced what the right strategy should be.

It was a little impressive that he was doing it so quickly.

But then again, he hadn't needed to think on this with a mountain of casualty reports being shoved in his face every ten minutes since the battle ended.

"Your Anbu are likely hard at work making more traps and kill zones through the village to repel any counter attack. My presence alone would make attacking in a surprise night raid difficult. No… he'll talk. And he'll talk tomorrow; first light."

"You have it all figured out then." Kakashi chuckled. "And what would you do then? Were you in my shoes?"

Gaara's eyes cleared, the pale green turning to him before turning away again. "You will have only one option."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow "Oh?"

The Kazekage didn't elaborate.

(X)(X)(X)

"How're ya doin there kid?"

When Sasame turns she finds Akane to be the one standing behind her.

She stares up through eyes that hurt and a throat that feels like there's a giant fist stuffed inside of it, sitting beside Yuugao's cot as she lays here at the side of a building, waiting for the medics to clear more room wherever they can find it.

Yuugao's hand is limp in Sasame's grip, cold and the only thing that tells the young lady that she's still breathing is the light fogging of her oxygen mask

There are red blotches on the bandages around the ruin of her mid section, scratches on her face, a sallowness to her skin. Yuugao looks half a corpse already and every slight pause in her breathing has Sasame's heart stopping in a deep, abject horror that she might not start again.

This was a nightmare… A horrible, dreadful nightmare that she just couldn't wake up from.

She looks down to the floor, and she can't see Akane through the shroud of her own dark hair spilling down around her shoulders.

"Hey." She feels the older girl place a hand on her shoulder, squeezing there tightly. "She's… she's gonna be ok Sasame-chan. She's Anbu, one of the best. It's… she's gonna be ok."

Sasame stares at Yuugao's hand, clasped in hers and says nothing.

She stares and stares, feeling a hand that's too cold, fingers with no strength, listening to that wretched, horrid rasp that passed for breathing.

"I can't do anything."

She feels Akane shift behind her, and all at once she whirls on the girl. This one, who had come to their home so much, helped Yuugao run her errands, interrupted her from her studies and always smiled, who looked at her now with sad and lost eyes.

And Sasame feels her tears come, burning across her eyes and down her cheeks.

Nobles don't cry.

Princesses don't cry.

She tries to swallow them they won't stop.

They burn at her eyes, scald her cheeks as they trail down and her features twist into something she can barely recognize in its feel. Something furious and angry and sad and forlorn and confused and frustrated; Everything at once.

She can't think. She can only feel and she's feeling too much to feel anything at the same time.

"I'm the lady of Fire!" She shouts, glaring at the girl that is the living embodiment of fire standing in front of her.

"I am the one who sits on the gold jade throne! I'm the one who can order armies! Can command Shinobi! I'm the one who's the most powerful ruler in the country! Right!? THEN WHY CAN'T I DO ANYTHING!"

She screams and it's pure rage that makes her bring her hands up, and bring her fists down with all the strength she has, punching and pounding at Akane's stomach and thighs, fury and rage making water burn at her eyes.

This girl who was everything she wasn't; everything she should be. Wild and Strong. With parents and friends that were real who had real power and real freedom!

Why!?

WHY?!

She screams, her eyes clenching shut as the tears burn. She feels pain in her throat, her voice tearing and hurt and before she fully understands Akane is kneeling down, wrapping her tightly in a hug that Sasame clings to with all the hurt and strength in her that turns the embrace into something desperate and grasping.

She cries and through the blur of her tears all she can see is the burning red of Akane's fiery hair.

(X)(X)(X)

Kyofu considers herself a self aware kunoichi, if nothing else.

She knows her strengths, her weaknesses, her limitations.

She is a strong kunoichi, a match for nearly any other, with Ryoko by her side, the bingo books warn that there is almost no target that can safely fight them when they're together.

Almost however is the operative word.

And Ryoko, strictly speaking is not here, she's busy pursuing the Iwa princess and even if she had been, Jinchuuriki are some of the few targets that would have a better than average chance of defeating the both of them together regardless.

Especially this one.

The 'Monster of Iwagakure' is not a title that was given to Han, and for all the power of her lizard, hawk and spider summons, she knows that her beasts are enacting a… delaying action at best. They don't have the power to outright destroy Han and whittling him down will never be an option. If he ever becomes truly desperate, Naruto's Mokuton is not available to force the Bijuu back into submission beneath the seal that imprisons it.

So she delays, she coordinates and sends wave after wave of her beasts to harry and harass, distract and confuse while other, smaller beasts scour the forests in search of Naruto himself.

Find him, extract him and the mission is complete.

They would pursue, there was no doubt about that. Naruto and his bloodline was too great a prize to not try and keep trying, even if just to eliminate it once and for all.

But her summons can run faster than any ninja should they be pressed to do so.

This is her plan, and as she feels yet another of her spider summons have its connection severed, returning to the summon realm with a screech of pain as Han tears through it she can't help but gnaw the inside of her cheek in worry as still her other smaller beats are having no luck finding her teammate.

Then, her senses flare, warning with a sharp spike of incoming danger and it's all she can do before she lunges off of the tree she was perched on before a pillar of superheated steam descends on the place from above, the leaves wilting and the bark cracking as the cloud boils the surface area.

She hears the monster through the eyes and ears of her summons.

"Found you"

The steam cloud tuns, like a smoky serpent and Kyofu curses her carelessness, curses her stupidity before her hands come together and she uses the lining of her gloves to cut her thumbs again, lines of blood being drawn.

Two clouds of smoke answer, and tough bronze colored scales oil around her as the cloud washes over the beast and a single beat of a great pair of wings disperses the cloud into wisps through the air.

She's not out of danger, she feels her other summons approaching, pursuing, coming towards her.

When Han lunges through the darkened gloom of the forest, Kyofu's lizard summon whips around her, fangs gleaming as it roars, a wash of acid spraying from its mouth right into Han, the burning droplets hissing as they chewed through his armor bring the acrid smell of burning metal and flesh.

Han thrusts his hand forward, the billowing cloud of steam she thought dispersed coalescing again to snare around her summon's jaw and with the clenching of an iron clad fist, slams the beast's jaws shut with a bone rattling crack.

Her beast barely has the time to snarl before Han's fist craters its skull, swiftly and violently severing her connection to it.

It vanishes in a cloud of smoke, leaving her exposed.

Han is still moving, still rushing through the air like an arrow, straight and true as he descends on her.

Kyofu draws her Tanto, it's all she has time to do, all she can think to do in her reflex.

It's not even a flimsy defense.

That same fist that shattered her summon's steel hard skull smashes through the blade like its porcelain, so violently that the shards of metal fly back into her.

Many deflect off her armor, or catch in the protective silk of her robes, but more than a few slivers pierce her like shrapnel, a slice across her face carves open one cheek, and she's sure a shard has buried itself in her scalp as well.

She doesn't give herself time to scream, doesn't let herself panic any more than she did.

She moves, dodging, and Han's fist misses her sternum by a hair, but the follow up elbow that cracks into her ribs is enough to shatter them even in his awkward angle.

Her breath rushes out of her, and the shock to her body is such that she can't immediately breathe again, her lungs starting and stopping, like an engine that can't quite kick in as she stumbles back.

Then the hawk she summoned for the steam cloud is there, screeching as it tries to tear at Han's eyes. The wide brimmed, armored hat makes such impossible and it's not long before Han's remaining hand snatches the hawk from the sky and breaks its body with the sound of dry twigs breaking and snapping.

It's weakness, not intent, that makes her lose her footing, slipping from the tree limb to fall to the forest below.

She tries to angle herself, control her fall, more importantly, control her landing.

But lances of pain spear through her side, her breathing is sucking down fire through her throat, vertigo hits her, up becomes down and when she grabs onto the side of a tree, the best she can manage is a controlled fall that wrenches something inside with a feeling of wet tearing.

It hurts, her vision lurches and swings again before she loses her grip.

She hits the ground, luckily, feet first and a lifetime of conditioning help her absorb her landing even as she feels her knee wrench itself the wrong way.

Her hold on her summons is tenuous, nearly broken, but it still holds.

She screams in pain, hoping one of them is close enough to hear and help, even as she hears Han approaching from above.

The first to reach her is one of her spiders, skittering and crawling, it screeches , mandibles clicking; she barely has the strength to grab onto the base of its leg to let herself be dragged away as the rest of her summons rush past her to intercept Han.

She opens her eyes, sliding along the forest floor and watches the beast of Iwa smash into her summons. A monster of armor against gnashing fangs and sharpened claws, poison spit and snaring webs.

One by one, her connection to them is severed, like a thread being snipped by sharp scissors, they're gone and Han is rushing after her again.

With her remaining arm, she reaches down, to her thigh, grabbing her satchel full of explosive tags and tears it off.

She watches, forcing her eyes to stay open, to stay fixed on Han as he draws closer and closer.

She's only got one shot at this.

The spider keeps tugging her, pulling. But her weight is too much, and she doesn't have the energy to summon Gumo, the boss, or the time.

He's going to reach them.

She grips the bag tight, holding onto it with all her strength.

Finally, when he's barely a dozen feet away, rushing to close the last bit of distance.

She throws it.

With a scream of pain she spits fire behind it.

She doesn't see his reaction, doesn't have time to. Her summon had been watching with it's eight eyes and with a whirling movement, too fast for any normal spider it jumps between them, shielding her from the blast even as its thunder rips through her body, sending waves of rolling pain through her guts and chest.

The forest floor quakes and rumbles. The sound hits her harder than anything else, feeling like a physical blow; and she cant even hear her own scream through the blast and the subsequent ringing in her ears.

But she has no reprieve, no moment. As quickly and violently as all the others, with the blast not even having subsided yet, her connection to her summon is severed and she opens her eyes in time to see it vanish in a cloud of smoke, Han standing over her, armor scuffed and scorched but with nothing else to show she'd done more than scratched the finish.

Her brain told her it was over, the part of her that was Orochimaru's student snarled and told her to quit bitching and find a solution.

The solution, such as it was, came in the form of a punch.

Not from her, it was unlikely she could have even mustered enough strength to deliver a spirited slap.

The punch came from none other than Sakura.

Kyofu had seen Sakura fight before, had been on the receiving end of more than her share of bruises. But Sakura did not hit with enough power to shatter the armor on Han's arm and send the armored monster skidding back, almost knocking him on his ass given the naked surprise in his eyes.

Long Pink hair fluttered, caught in the shockwave impact of her own strike as the girl straightened and Kyofu caught along her profile, the mess of scars that curled at the side of her cheek and eye.

They were glowing.

Like lines of fire running along the cracks of her skin, raw chakra leaking from the old wound.

(X)(X)(X)

It's the feel of her own heartbeat that she becomes aware of first.

It's a strange sensation to be aware of. To focus on.

Her body so numb and so cold she can only feel that most peculiar sensation; the muscle thump thumping a steady, if sluggish beat in her chest.

Then she feels static, pins and needles across her fingers and limbs, a churning nausea in her gut.

The pain across her skull throbs and aches like a drill boring through the inside of her skull.

It hurts.

Soon she realizes everything hurts.

She feels his hands then.

Calloused, rough, and unyielding. They're not healers' hands. Not really. They're tools for killing but oh how he's tried to turn them into healing hands.

One is splayed across her back, holding her up off the ground, the heel of his palm to her upper back, fingers splayed behind her head to try and support it as his other is no doubt awash in green energy that's keeping her heart beating, struggling to save her.

Hinata opens her eyes.

Sasuke stares down at her.

His eyes are dark, like black storm clouds, his face a rictus of concentration and effort.

Sweat beads his forehead as he grits his teeth, and when she dares to look, black poison is oozing from the various cuts and gashes that litter her exposed pale skin.

She is the Hokage's foremost apprentice, the next master of the Anbu corp if her teacher had his way. She's studied poisons. And so she's studied the healing arts that can counter her poisons.

She knows what it takes to remove toxins from the blood. Knows how difficult and taxing it is. To even remove a single dosage could leave lesser healers drained and tired for hours.

She very much doubts Sasori, in his desperation, had been… stingy.

Sasuke can't afford to exhaust himself, not for her sake.

Her Byakugan is one of many.

Naruto, the Mokuton, is not.

She knows that.

He knows it too.

Her hand raises, and even that, in and of itself, takes effort, brings pain like needles of fire through her veins.

She ignores it, pushes past it, forces her fingers into the familiar sign; It's all she can manage.

Mission.

His eyes dart to her hand and his face tightens, he ignores her, shoving more energy into her tenketsu. She can feel it, like a physical swell beneath her chest and ribs.

Her hand loosens its sign, and she places it against his wrist, trying to push him away.

She feels so damn weak.

"If he were here, he'd want me to save you." He hisses.

She glares as best she can; but it's hardly more than a glower.

Naruto's feelings are irrelevant. They aren't a justification.

Mission.. Critical.

"So are you." Sasuke bites out. "Now with all due respect commander, stop talking, I need to concentrate."

She spares him an unamused look at his stupid joke, and he shoots her a self satisfied smirk.

It vanishes in the next second as he grimaces and she realizes it's not in effort-

It's pain.

Her alarm raises and her eyes rake him over, searching for injury, but she finds nothing.

When she brings her eyes to him again- she stares.

Her Byakugan isn't active.

And yet she can see Chakra hovering around Sasuke…

Like a corona, an aura, it's thin, barely a wisp of smoke, a heat distortion, but it's there.

It's most visible around his eyes.

He blinks, shaking his head and the nebula recedes as he breathes shakily through his nose.

"Something I should tell you." He hisses. "-You need to know in case I don't remember."

'What's wrong?

The question is calm, her mind is frantic, her insides twisting in worry.

He looks down at her, peering through a glowing film of something just over his eyes, and smiles.

It's a small thing, barely there. But he smiles so rarely she can't help but notice.

"I've had a crush on you for years." He says.

Her brain stutters; dumbfounded.

His eyes close in pain again and his next words are hissed through his teeth. "I didn't… that's a difference I know is real."

His words are strange, but her worry overshadows her confusion as he shuts his eyes tightly, his healing faltering before reasserting itself with a firm, almost desperate need as he pours more energy through his hands that momentarily seem to crackle with lightning rather than soothing green.

"You need to know." He hisses through clenched teeth. "And when this is done… you need to remind me."

She doesn't understand, and her fear only increases, before the green flares for a moment before fading away.

Her injuries aren't healed, but she can breathe, her heart is still beating, the worst of the toxin is gone.

Even so… she feels weak, vulnerable and useless.

Sasuke's face is a jagged series of hard lines, eyes closed in what is undeniably a physical pain as he leans over her.

There's a sound, distant,the sounds of a battle, people still fighting.

He gets to his feet with a gasp, blinking through the haze.

"I'll be back soon." He assures, and when he looks at her, she doesn't fully recognize the one staring back.

"It's almost over." He says.

(X)(X)(X)

The waters lap and churn at their feet, and to Orochimaru's eye it seems to dance, subtly to be sure, but the movement beneath his feet is altogether unnatural, like droplets of water sliding up blades of freshly cut grass, slipping over pebbles and finding ways to slip over the edges of little cracks and fissures in the stone.

It's an eerie thing, causing a disquiet to burn at the back of his mind, and he knows like an instinct, an intuition in his bones that this one is responsible for it.

He is a frail, emaciated thing, his lower torso fused with a bone white, dead tree, the roots coiling around and through his legs, until flesh and bark become something indistinguishable beneath the dark silk covering over him.

Konan lays at the roots, close enough for his arms to cradle her close with arms that seem more bone than flesh and sinew.

His features are gaunt, sunken cheeks and hollowed eye sockets.

But the eyes themselves… he's never seen the like.

Lilac, dark rings circling the pupil, all the way to a non existent sclera.

His eyes wander, just a bit, just enough; he has to because there, at the side of the tree, framed by tiny rivulets of cascading water.. Is a cairn.

And on it is a broken horned hitai-ate he would recognize anywhere. Even through a hundred lifetimes.

His fist grips the hilt of Kusanagi tight, and it takes a true effort to reign in his temper, but reign it in he does.

"Who are you?" He asks, and he's able to do so with a calm he doesn't quite feel. His voice low and level. Tsunade shifts beside him, walking to gain some distance, to start encircling this mystery for the fight they came here to finish.

Ringed eyes stare at him, and when the answer comes, the man's lips do not move.

The waters ripple and churn, and little droplets hiss out as the very air vibrates with power.

"We… are all that's left."

His speech, if it could be called such, is slow, punctuated. Like the pouring of rain itself, falling in a torrent for sound but receding its intensity to enunciate words and sentences.

The level of control this must take… just to speak...

"All that's left of what?" It's Tsunade who asks. Lips curled into a sneer.

He turns his eyes to her and again the water's of the aqueduct and the rain itself answer.

"Of Jiraiya."

He can't help but stiffen, feeling his spine straighten, a chill of something that was not quite fear and not quite rage, and yet wholly born of indignation burns low in his gut and an angry snarl is on his lips before he can help himself.

"You're lying." It's Tsunade who spits out the words, and the heat he feels is reflectede in her voice.

"No." The waters hiss/whisper, calming at their feet. "I understand my dear Konan's enmity towards you… but I do not share it."

The man looks down at the blue haired kunoichi as she tries to move, to get up one more time even as she pants like a wounded animal. His hands hold her still, before he turns back to them.

I would have no desire to lie to you. My master, your friend, would not want it. And I've always tried to honor his memory as best I can."

It's Tsunade who moves first, anger and pain clear on her face as she stalks forward, heedless of danger as her fist clenches.

Before he can move, the waters rush, and suddenly, surrounding the tree like a shell, is a wall of water. It whorls and roars and he has little doubt that, somehow, stuffed within that tiny frame no thicker than a meter, there's enough compressed pressure to crush pure stone, let alone human limbs and flesh.

Tsunade backs up, but its only for a moment, her fist cocks back, and the punch she delivers straight into the wall is enough to shatter mountains.

He sees the water burst out the other side like an explosion, before being caught and redirected by this Ame Nin's incredible control.

Like a school of swimming fish it dances through the air before returning to its place in the defensive technique, the wall looking none the worse for wear as it calms.

The raging torrent becomes a placid bubble and the Ame nin stares at them through those unnatural eyes.

"Please… I do not wish for enmity between us. Listen to my tale… and my offer if after such, you still wish to fight… then we may do so and let the cycle continue as it always has."

"Your dear Konan-" Orochimaru finds himself saying as he and Tsunade begin to circle the barrier "is the leader of Amegakure. An Amegakure which is currently the lynchpin to a confederacy of many smaller villages allied against Konoha." He explains slowly. "We came here to kill her, and now you I suppose are a package deal."

Then you have nothing to lose by indulging me."

"Except letting you stall for time." Tsunade snarled.

"Do you believe, with all I've shown you- that I couldn't have summoned help long before you arrived if I wished to."

"I imagine the only one who knows this place exists is that woman sitting on your lap." He shot back, calling the bluff."

The man's shoulders sagged. "She has always been protective of me…

When he brought his eyes back to them there was a steely, resolve in them. "I will protect her now as well, if you force me." He warned again, the waters hissing angrily at their feet, like a million tiny serpents.

"We have our mission." He says simply.

"So you do… and yet I would ask, one last time, for the sake of the one you called your friend… to hear me out… is that such an impossible thing?"

Orochimaru felt his lip curl, the anger roiling in his gut. And he knew Tsunade at his back was little better

It was manipulation. Blatant. Textbook.

He had SEEN Jiraiya die with his own eyes.

And yet…

He turned his eyes to the cairn, shield behind the water veil, and the broken horned hitai-ate resting there.

Why would that be here?

"Tell me something,'' he demanded, turning to the man. "Tell me something only he would have ever known. You say you're his student… So. Confirm it."

The demand was snarled, and the man held his silence for a long, interminable moment, and through the water, Orochimaru could spy the blood trailing down from Konan's wounds and into the soil, contrasting sharply against the bone white wood.

Finally, he turned to Tsunade.

"He did not attend your wedding

Orochimaru felt himself stiffen even as Tsunade snorted.

"He had a mission, that's hardly-"

"No. He didn't" Those inscrutable eyes turned to Orochimaru."That's what you were told-" He says, staring pointedly at the serpent master. "By the man who convinced him not to leave."

(X)(X)(X)

Finally a chapter that had almost no fights. Got it done in almost record time xD.

Next chapter we go back to fights but its certainly simpler than juggling the 5 plus fights from before. So *hopefully* things can still go relatively quickly.

Anyhow, 2-3 chapters left.